Of course, the bonus about getting to spend the winter in Paris are mini-breaks on the European continent.
Which I experienced one December weekend five years ago when I easyJetted off to Prague for the weekend.
Which is when I took this photo.
When I first visited Prague, I thought to myself, “This city is like a mini-Vienna!”
I don’t think I’m too far off. After all, the two cities are only a few hours apart. They also share a long history.
Well, for starters, both cities were part of the Holy Roman Empire and both were later ruled by the Hapsburgs. That went on for a century or three. When the Austrian Empire was created in 1804, it absorbed the Kingdom of Bohemia ― that’s the half of the Czech Republic where Prague sits today. And then in 1867, when the Austrians and the Hungarians decided to get together and form the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemia was made one of its provinces and remained so until 1918.
That’s an awful lot of Austrians hovering in and around Prague for an awful lot of years.
I first visited Prague in the summer of 1998. I quickly realized it was a city of deep contrasts that was working hard to recover from all those centuries of domination by each of its neighbours in turn: the Hapsburgs and the Austrians I’ve already mentioned, and the Nazis, and, oh yeah, those Russians.
That same summer, I heard an American-Jew who had lived in both Prague and Vienna say that the Czech nation has always been western, and it was dragged kicking and screaming into the East in both 1948 (when the Communists took power) and 1968 (when the Russian tanks rolled into town).
From what I saw, Prague ― a definitively western city that bears a striking resemblance to Vienna ― had bounced back into the West with lightning speed. Less than a decade after the fall of communism, designer shops and McDonalds dominated the streets and a flurry of tourists from all over Europe filled the Old Town Square daily.
Prague has a long and storied history simply because of geography: it sits at the crossroads of Europe. I find that fascinating.
But even more fascinating is a city full of life and colour and music that is (at long last) relishing its independence.
And now for something completely different. Just because.
Malá Strana is Czech for “little quarter.” It’s located across the Vltava River from Prague’s Old Town.
I was at the Vancouver Opera again last weekend, enjoying a superb performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This opera premiered a couple of centuries ago at the Estates Theatre in Prague, a city that loved Mozart and that Mozart loved in return. He was treated like a rock star whenever he came to town. Don Giovanni was commissioned by an Italian living in Prague when he saw how popular Mozart was in that city.
The Estates Theatre also happens to be where I first saw Don Giovanni. In fact, seeing Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre in Prague was my first ever live opera experience. My friend and I treated ourselves to box seats because they set us back a mere $20 ― it was quite the introduction to live opera. If you enjoy music and you happen to be in Prague, I highly recommend checking it out.
I don’t have any photos of the Estates Theatre, but if you were to walk down the street in the photo below, the theatre would come into view just as you round the corner. Can’t you picture this street on a clear, crisp October night in 1787, with gown and cape–clad Praguers arriving at the Estates Theatre in their horse-drawn carriages? Then, with a little imagination, picture them sweeping en masse into the newly built theatre to witness a grand spectacle: the newest (some say best) opera from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by the Maestro himself.
Go on. Imagine.
A co-worker of mine went to the Czech Republic earlier this month. When I found out where she was going for her holidays, my eyes lit up.
“The Czech Republic?!” I said. “Are you going to the Christmas markets?”
She smiled. “Of course!” she said.
She explained that the main purpose of the trip was to visit her grandmother who lived somewhere out in the Czech countryside, but her family also had plans to stop off in Prague, and were going to make a special trip to Nuremberg, Germany, just to see its Christmas market.
Christmas markets have been around since the Middle Ages. They are common throughout Western Europe and are especially prevalent in Central Europe. In recent years, they’ve been popping up all over England and North America, too. Common elements include chalet-like stalls set up in town squares, which sell handicrafts, toys, Christmas ornaments, lots of tasty treats, and the ubiquitous Glühwein (mulled wine).
I can’t remember when or where I first heard of Christmas markets, but a couple of years ago when I knew I would be spending the winter in Paris, I was determined to experience as many as I could.
The first Christmas market I came across that winter was unexpected, as it was mid-November and Christmas was far from my mind. I was in Seville, Spain. The market was in the square near the massive cathedral, and contained stall after stall selling wooden nativities. The nativities were works of art, truly. Each figure was sold separately and cost far more euros than I had to spend.
In Madrid, the Christmas market in Plaza Mayor dates back to 1860. It too was filled with stalls selling wooden nativity figures.
Steps away from Plaza Mayor, I stumbled across a smaller market in Plaza Santa Cruz with a more light-hearted carnival atmosphere. Its stalls were selling costumes, wigs, and accessories for Dia de los Santos Inocentes on December 28. (This is the Spanish equivalent to our April Fool’s Day, though its origins are rather sombre: the day commemorates the massacres of the “Holy Innocents” ― the children murdered by Herod in his search for the newborn king the wise men had told him about.)
In Paris, there are Marchés de Noël in almost every arrondissement. I made it to three. The market at Trocadéro is probably the most picturesque as it’s situated across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. It also has a popular skating rink.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a much smaller market, with stalls nestled along Boulevard Saint-Germain and around the church of Saint-Germain-des- Prés.
The market along Avenue des Champs-Elysées is massive, and runs all the way from the giant Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde to the Franklin D. Roosevelt métro station. It consists of several blocks of stalls selling vin chaud, crêpes, chocolate, sausages, and all sorts of handicrafts. Every block or so there was a heater where you could warm your hands. We walked the entire length of this market on Christmas Eve.
Although Paris is a magical time to be in December, the Christmas markets I was most excited about seeing were in the Czech Republic. I was thrilled to see the Old Town Square of Prague once again, but I could never have imagined how pretty it would look at Christmastime.
The lights were impressive, and there was an enormous Christmas tree as well as a nativity, a stage where children were singing Christmas carols, and hundreds of red-roofed stalls selling food and toys and ornaments.
I enjoyed a trdelník ― a sweet pastry baked over hot coals and sprinkled with sugar and nuts ― and later a massive slab of spit-roasted ham. To keep warm, I bought mug after mug of Glühwein ― in Czech, it’s called svařené víno. There was another, smaller market in Prague’s Wenceslas Square with much of the same, although not as prettily lit.
The next day, I travelled to Český Krumlov. Its small, intimate Christmas market had the feeling of a neighbourhood bazaar, with local artisans selling their handiwork, and the local school putting on a Christmas concert after dark.
I don’t know if I will ever make it to Nuremberg, the granddaddy of all Christmas markets ― my co-worker said there were over 200 stalls there ― but, even so, seeing the Spanish, French, and Czech Christmas markets was something already. If you need an excuse to visit Europe in December (seriously? who ever needs an excuse to go to Europe?), I highly recommend going for the Christmas markets.
Today is Saint Jean Baptiste Day, so I’m posting a photo of the man himself. (Er … make that a photo of a statue of the man himself.)
This is on the Charles Bridge in Prague. That’s the Castle he’s pointing to.
More than 100 people have died from the extreme cold experienced throughout Central and Eastern Europe this week. The news reminded me of my apprehension last winter after booking a weekend visit to the Czech Republic. I really wanted to see Prague covered in snow, but as the calendar inched closer and closer to my departure date, I started to have second thoughts. Would I spend the entire weekend ducking from café to café, trying to keep warm? I tracked the daily highs in Prague. They were averaging –10 °C ― a bit chilly for my thin Vancouver blood!
And then, the day before I was to fly from Paris to Prague, France was hit with a massive snowstorm. Flights at Charles de Gaulle airport were cancelled left, right, and centre. I began to doubt I would make it out of Paris. While travelling around Europe in winter does have its benefits, there are some serious drawbacks, too, particularly when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
However, my flight did leave the next afternoon … eventually … and after two delightful days in Prague, I took a bus through the Czech countryside to Český Krumlov (ches-key krum-lof).
Why Český Krumlov, you ask? I first heard of the town from some classmates the summer I spent in Prague. They had gone for the weekend and raved about how pretty it was. Several years later when my sisters were planning a train-pass trek around Europe and told me they intended to stop in Prague, I suggested they visit Český Krumlov as well. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful,” I told them. It ended up being one of their favourite stops on the entire trip. I repeated the recommendation to some friends a few years after that. They too told me the day they spent in Český Krumlov was the best of their European vacation.
I was beginning to realize I had missed out by not visiting the place myself.
But here I was. Finally.
I was the last person off the bus. After grabbing my bag, I stopped the bus attendant before she jumped back on the bus. “Which way to the Old Town?” I asked. “Over the bridge,” she said, pointing, and then she disappeared and the bus pulled away.
I walked over the bridge and headed into town. I knew Český Krumlov wasn’t a big place, but it was a little disconcerting not to see any tourists, not even a local. But this is one of the advantages of travelling in Europe in the middle of winter: you get the place all to yourself.
I reached the castle, where I popped into the tourist information centre to get a map. I asked the girl at the counter to point out exactly where I was, and where I needed to go, and then I continued on my way. I soon reached the Old Town Square and then, after only one or two wrong turns, Penzion U Náměstí, where I had a reservation for my two nights. U Náměstí means “at the town square.”
On my arrival at the pension, I discovered another advantage of travelling in winter: fabulous accommodations are available for fabulous prices. My attic room (a double, but I paid the single rate) was the largest room I’ve ever stayed in, by far. It was furnished with a queen-sized bed, an armchair, a loveseat, two coffee tables, and a small TV with satellite. The toilet and bathroom were off the little hallway leading into my room; at the end of this hallway was the door to my room. It felt like a suite. I was offered my choice of hot or cold breakfast served in my room at whatever time I chose. And (bonus!), there was a skylight over my bed so I could listen to the snow fall.
I spent the afternoon wandering around and orientating myself. Český Krumlov is a small town in southern Bohemia, one of the three historic provinces of the Czech Republic. Located about 180 kilometres south of Prague and 40 kilometres north of the border with Austria, it was founded in the early thirteenth century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Prague, the town is built around the castle that towers above it. Český (Czech) distinguishes the town from Moravský Krumlov.
For lunch, I bought myself a trdelník ― a sweet pastry baked over hot coals and sprinkled with sugar and nuts ― from a shop selling the treats through a window. There was a small Christmas market in the Old Town Square with stalls selling ornaments and crafts made by local artisans. Much glühwein was consumed ― I had to keep warm, after all!
The next morning, I wandered up to the castle and spent several hours exploring it. The interior is closed for the winter (another drawback of travelling in the off-season), but much of the mile-long castle grounds, including five courtyards, are open to the public year-round. The tower of the Little Castle offered great views over the Old Town, as did the seven-level Cloak Bridge.
I spent the afternoon at the Egon Schiele Art Centre. Schiele was a student of Gustav Klimt’s. His mother was from Český Krumlov, and he himself lived there for a time. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his work, but I learned something new (which for me is the whole point of travelling) and I appreciated having a warm place to spend the afternoon.
In the evening, I enjoyed an Advent concert of local schoolchildren in the Old Town Square. It was great fun watching the children trying to sing while wrapped up snuggly in their winter coats, scarves, and hats, and many proud parents were gathered before the stage. I only lasted about a half hour though before I started to get very cold.
As I settled my bill with the pension owner the next morning, I commented on the cold weather, and she said, “But I think Canada is much colder, yes?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her I live in a city with a much more temperate climate than Central Europe. I thanked her for the great accommodation, then wandered off to the bus station to wait for the bus that would take me back to Prague, From there, I caught my flight (delayed again!) back to Paris.
If you’re willing to put up with the travel delays that are inevitable in cold winter climates, and don’t mind wandering about a strange town in inclement weather, then I highly recommend travelling to Europe in the winter. There were few other tourists in Český Krumlov that weekend ― a large tour group of Asians seemed to be the only other guests ― and lower demand for accommodation means great deals. Granted, I really lucked out with the weather. It was cold enough for snow flurries, but warm enough (about –3 °C, I think) to walk for hours. The fresh snowfall made for some memorable photos, but I shudder to think how cold I might have been had the temperatures dipped to the levels they have been this week in that part of the world.
Many summers ago, I spent four weeks in Prague. Some years later, I came across a photo of the Charles Bridge and the Castle covered with a fresh blanket of snow. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Canadian, but I immediately said to myself, “Someday, I’m going back to Prague and I’m going in the wintertime. I want to see it with snow.” I finally got my chance last winter.
I took this photo on my first morning. It was snowing lightly. I felt like I had walked into a fairy tale.
On a July afternoon in 1998, I was standing with a crowd of tourists beneath the Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall in the Old Town Square of Prague. I was in Prague as a student, enrolled in a fiction-writing course of the Prague Summer Seminars — a program then sponsored by the University of New Orleans in conjunction with Charles University.
Crowds of tourists standing beneath the Astronomical Clock were nothing new to me — every hour, on the hour, they stood there, waiting for the clock to chime. But this crowd seemed larger than usual and I was curious.
I lucked out. A few minutes later, a motorcade of burgundy Mercedes sedans pulled up, dignitary flags flapping. Out of the first car hopped President Václav Havel, the playwright who was then running the country, on his way into the Old Town Hall. As quickly as he had arrived, he disappeared, and the crowd began to disperse.
The following weekend, my roommate and I bumped into my writing teacher, Arnošt Lustig, as we walked out of the Castle. A spry septuagenarian, he held out his arms in greeting as he climbed the steep steps. I grinned broadly at catching him off-duty. My friend asked Arnošt whether he was also sight-seeing, but he exclaimed, “I live here!” and he pointed at the Castle. He had told us so in class, but we didn’t quite believe him for he was quite a story-teller.
When I asked Arnošt for details the next day, as we drank our coffee and ate our palachinkas on our mid-class break, he told me how he had helped out Václav Havel years earlier when the Communists were after him. In return, Arnošt stayed at the Castle, as Havel’s guest, any time Arnošt was in Prague. What a beautiful friendship, I thought, and I never doubted Arnošt’s stories again.